Edward Benson.

Thorley Weir



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CHAPTER V

A dark October day with slanting flows of peevish rain tattooing on the big north window of Charles' new studio, was drawing to a chill and early close, and the light was rapidly becoming too bad to paint. His mother, at whose picture he had been working all day, was sitting in front of the plain deal table from his old studio, with fingers busily rattling on her typewriter, and Charles had put his easel on the model's-stand and worked from this elevation, since the figure in the picture was looking upwards. It was nearing completion, and the last steps which were costing him so much biting of the ends of his brushes, and so continual a frown that it seemed doubtful if his forehead could ever again lose its corrugations, were being taken, and his progress which up till now had been so triumphantly uninterrupted was beginning to shuffle and mark time. Admirable though the wistful welcoming love in her face was, thrice admirable as Craddock had thought it, Charles knew now it did not completely represent what he saw. All day he had been working at it, making his patient model keep rising and looking at him, and not only was he dissatisfied with the inadequacy of it, but he knew that he was losing the simplicity and brilliance of his earlier work on it. Hence these knottings in his forehead, and the marks of teeth in the handles of his brushes.

"Mother, darling," he said, "stand up once more, will you, and that will be all. Now!"

By incessant repetition she had got the pose with unerring accuracy, and she pushed back her chair and rose facing him. He looked back from her to his canvas, and from it back again to her, and the frown deepened. It was not the best he could do, but he could not better it by patching and poking at it. For one moment he wavered; the next he had taken up his palette knife and with three strokes erased the whole of the head. Then he gave a great sign of relief.

"Thank God, that's done," he said, "and to-morrow I will begin all over again. I was afraid I wasn't going to do that."

"My dear, what have you done?" she asked, leaving her place and coming to look. "Oh, Charles, you've scraped it all out."

"Yes, thank God, as I said before."

"But when Mr. Craddock saw it this afternoon he said it was so wonderful."

"Well, I daresay it wasn't bad. But if Craddock thinks that I'm going to be content with things that aren't bad, he's wrong," said Charles. "It'll be time for me to say 'That will do,' in twenty years from now. For the present I'm not going to be content with anything but the best that I can do, and that wasn't the best, and that is why there's that pat of paint on my palette knife, and no head on your dear shoulders."

Mrs. Lathom still looked troubled.

"But he had ordered it, dear," she said. "He had chosen it as the picture he was going to buy from you this year."

Charles rapidly turned on all the electric light.

"I don't care a straw," he said.

"Nobody is going to have pictures of mine that aren't as good as I can make them. I see more than I saw when I painted it first, and I couldn't inlay that into it. Your face isn't a patch-work counter-pane. No, we begin again. Now, mother dear, do be kind and toast muffins for tea, while I give the place where your head was a nice wash-down with turpentine, so that there's no speck of paint left on it. Reggie's coming in, and as soon as we've got greasy all over our faces with muffins we'll go and stand in the queue at the theatre. We shall have to go pretty early. 'Easter Eggs' is a tremendous hit and the pit's always crammed."

Charles scrubbed away at his canvas for a minute or so in silence, beaming with satisfaction at his erasure of the head.

"I'm blowed if we stand in the queue at all," he said. "As a thanks-offering for my own honesty, I shall go and get the three best places that are to be had. Now I won't be thwarted. I shall get fifty pounds this week for the Reynolds copy, and I choose, madam, I choose to go to the stalls. I will be economical again to-morrow for weeks and weeks. Hullo, here's the child. Reggie, come and look at my picture of Ma. Haven't I caught the vacant expression of her face quite beautifully? I think I shall let Craddock have it just as it is, and he can call it 'The guillotine at play.'"

"Charles, you are the most tiresome – " began his mother.

"I know: I touch the limits of endurance. But I am pleased to have wiped your face for you. I shall want you at ten o'clock to-morrow morning. Goodness, how it rains! I am glad I'm not going to stand outside for a couple of hours."

Reggie had subsided into a large chair, and was toasting his feet at the fire.

"Mother's morose," he said, "when I was prepared to enjoy myself. She always was a kill-joy. Mother, darling, you shouldn't indulge in these melancholy fits. Consider what a great girl you are. Consider anything, but put lots of butter on the muffins. Charles, history repeats itself. Mr. Ward – opulent American, you know – came in again to-day with Craddock, and again he drew a cheque at my desk, and again, though I lent him my pen, he didn't tip me. He must be indecently rich, because to-day he gave Craddock a cheque for ten thousand and one hundred pounds."

"What had he bought?"

"Dunno. Some little trifle for the servants' hall I suppose. Ten thousand for the picture, one hundred for the frame, do you think? Oh, another thing: there was a long notice in the 'Whitehall' about the Exhibition at the 'British Painters and Etchers.' I brought it home. It says all kinds of things about the picture of me. Here it is: catch hold."

Charles snatched at the paper with all a boy's natural pride in being for the first time noticed in the press. Nor was the morose Mrs. Lathom less eager, for with muffin on toasting-fork she left the fire and read over his shoulder, and the moroseness vanished.

"Oh, Charles," she cried, "'Brilliant achievement – masterly technique – the gem of a rather mediocre exhibition – figure of a graceful stripling.' – Reggie, my graceful stripling, that's you – 'a new note in English painting' – You darlings, what a pair of you! I should like to know who wrote it. I wish the people would sign their names."

But as Charles read his first impulse of pleasure faded altogether. At the end he crumpled the paper up, and threw it into the fender.

"Good Lord, what rot!" he said.

"Lays it on thick, doesn't it?" said Reggie. "But I like the part about the graceful stripling."

"You would," said Charles.

The studio which was part of Craddock's bargain with Charles was admirable in design and appointment. A huge sky-light, set in the slope of the roof, looked towards the north, and an apparatus of blinds made it easy to get as much or as little light as was required. The walls were of that most neutral of all tints, the grey-green of the underside of olive leaves, and the parquet floor had a few sober-hued rugs over it. But colour was there in plenty: a couple of brilliant screens, one of lacquer, one of stamped Spanish leather, intercepted possible draughts, and gave a gorgeous warmth of hue to their neighbourhoods, and a big open fireplace with Dutch tiles, and a little congregation of chairs round about it, added to a mere workroom a delightful focus of rest and comfort. The faithful skeleton and the flayed man kept each other company in a sequestered corner, where they might be supposed to entertain each other with dismal tales of how they came to be what they were, for the room was no longer the study of a student, but the living-place of a practitioner. Beyond these things there was little to attract the attention, or seduce the eye, for the vision that comes from within must feed on what it suggests to itself, and not be tickled with what others have done and thought.

At the time when Craddock had made his offer to Charles, the room, with its little chamber adjoining, was already in his hands, and he had thought of using it as an overflow gallery from Thistleton's, but he had drawn a longer bow in offering it to Charles, for his speculation there he believed to hold a larger financial possibility than an extension of Thistleton's promised. And his furnishing it, in accordance with what he thought to be Charles' psychical requirements, was not less than masterly. Morning by morning, when Charles arrived there, he felt instinctively that he saw clearly here, that his own vision was unharassed by things that were ugly and inconvenient, and yet not distracted by the challenge of beauty that demanded attention. In this temperate, colourless place he grew as plants grow on warm grey days, not soaked or scorched, but realizing themselves, and expanding accordingly to their own irresistible vitality. A month ago, Charles could not have scraped out the face that to-day he so joyfully erased from his canvas. No doubt these utterly congenial conditions did not produce his development, but they presented nothing that hindered. Above all, the constant gnawing at his heart of the thought that he earned nothing, contributed nothing to those who worked for him, was removed. To some natures such conditions are a spur, to him they had only been a drag. They had never retarded his industry, but they had always caused him that inward anxiety which, though he knew it not, shackled the perfect freedom of his service to art. To-day he had no touch of such cramp or stiffness: he felt entirely untrammelled: his soul stood nude and unimpeded, like some beautiful runner or wrestler. There was nothing to hinder its leap and swiftness.

Arthur Craddock had been exceedingly busy this autumn; indeed, since the month that he had spent at Marienbad during August, when he atoned for the plethora of nourishment which he had taken during the year before, and cleared his decks, so to speak, for action again, he had hardly spent a night out of town. The bulk of his work was in connection with the production of "Easter Eggs," for, since he knew that no acting manager would look at it, for not containing a star-part, or if he did, would quite infallibly spoil it by making a star part out of it, he, on rather a magnificent scale of speculation, had taken a theatre himself, and himself engaged the actors whom he desired to see in it. These were without exception ladies and gentlemen who had not hitherto been so fortunate as to attract attention; for this reason their services were more cheaply secured, which was an advantage, but the corresponding disadvantage was that they were not possessed of any great histrionic experience, and thus needed the more drilling and instruction. Craddock had engaged an excellent stage-manager, who fully entered into his conception of the manner in which the play must be presented, but there was scarce a rehearsal at which he was not himself present, and after which he did not confabulate with his stage-manager. Sometimes from the incessant hearing of the scenes, they seemed to him to lack all significance and dramatic force, and be, as their despairing author had openly avowed them, the merest twaddle. But even when hope burned lowest, and Craddock seriously wondered how great would be the loss he would have to face, he still stuck to his opinion that there were marketable elements in this quiet drama.

He had another cause for financial disquietude. During the summer there had been an outrageous exhibition of post-Impressionists at one of the London galleries, and though from an artistic point of view he considered that these nightmare canvases had as little to do with art as the "tasteful" decorations of a saloon-carriage, he had through an agent made very considerable purchases of them, with a view to unloading again on the confiding public. Since his return from Marienbad he had caused them to be hung in Thistleton's gallery, and had written several signed articles in the "Whitehall" which he considered should have proved provocative of purchasers. But up to the present the gallery had been barren of buyers, and even though himself pointed out to Mr. Ward, to whom his recommendation had hitherto been always sufficient, the marvels of this new mode of vision, and masterly defiant absence of all that had hitherto been known as drawing or painting, the latter, though lamenting his artistic blindness, had altogether declined to make breaks in the frieze of nightmare which brooded on the gallery walls. But though for the present his money – a considerable sum of it – was locked up in these monstrous and unmarketable wares he did not (which would have affected him far more poignantly), lose prestige as a critic and appraiser of art, since he had bought under an agent's name, and the secret of his identity with Thistleton's Gallery was at present inviolate. His astute young clerk, as has been seen, had conjectured as much, but it was only a conjecture, and the conjecturer was only Reggie. Had Craddock known of Reggie's brotherhood to his new prot?g?, he might perhaps have devoted a little thought as to whether he should take any steps to ensure secrecy: as it was he neither knew Reggie's name, nor suspected his conjecture or relationship.

A third disagreeableness had chequered September for Craddock, and added a further burden to his anxieties during the weeks of rehearsal for this play. Four years before he had purchased one of his convenient options on the literary work of a slow-labouring and diabolically-canny Scotchman, who had failed to find a publisher for a story which Craddock had judged to be a very beautiful and delicate piece of work. He had given this execrable Pict the sum of three hundred pounds for it, coupled with the right to purchase any future work by him during the next three years for the same sum. Whereupon the execrable Pict, having made quite sure that he had mastered the terms of his agreement, had sat down in his frugal house in Perthshire and devoted himself to study and porridge and reflection. For those three years he had not set pen to paper, but lived a life of meditation that would have done credit to a student of R?ja Yogi attaining Sam?dhi, and, the period of his apprenticeship to Craddock being finished and the contract terminated, had written a book over which, when it was published during September, the whole world, it seemed, had laughed and wept. Never was there a more tender and exquisite idyll, reviewers hailed him as Scotland's most transcendent sun, round which all lesser lights must for ever burn dim. Hot and hot the editions poured from the press, and Craddock, impotent and dismayed, saw the little fortune which he felt was justly his pour into the purse of this disgusting Northerner. The execrable Pict was a Danae. He sat with gold showering round him, the gold that he had acquired in those three years when he sordidly lived, thanks to Craddock's bounty, on porridge and meditation. Craddock had not, it will be observed, lost money over this unfortunate transaction, since he had more than gathered back his original outlay, but the thought of what he had missed woke him early in the morning, after the remembrance of the last rehearsal had prevented his going to sleep at night. Legally, he believed he might be judged to have some claim, since the book in question was, if not blackly written with ink on paper, invented and thought over and prepared during those years in which he had a claim on the author's work, but for personal reasons he did not desire that this pathetic history should be exposed to the unsympathetic ventilation of the law-courts. But it confirmed to him the wisdom of doing business, wherever possible, with the young and inexperienced.

Though these financial clamours were loud round him, Craddock was not so distracted by them as to neglect his interests in the work of his new artist, and it says much for his equanimity in troublesome times that, between these discouraging rehearsals, and the contemplation of the execrable Pict and the unmarketable post-Impressionists, he devoted his full attention to the furnishing of such a studio for Charles as would give him the best possible conditions for work. He himself chose its furniture and embellishment: he sat with his white face on one side and his little eyes half-closed to select the colour for the walls: he himself pulled the blinds up and down over the big north light to make sure that this novel system of springs worked smoothly. He did not, of course, go so far as to believe that a suitably-appointed studio can do anything whatever towards the ripening of a possible genius, but his own thoroughness and common-sense told him that when you are dealing with a brain and hand so sensitive as that of a true portrait-painter, it is the falsest economy to spare either money or trouble in securing for him the best possible conditions for his work. And when, this afternoon, he paid a visit to the studio, an hour before Charles triumphantly and joyously expunged that sweet and tender face from his canvas, Craddock thought himself justified.

It will be readily understood that among this multiplicity of ventures and perplexities, Craddock had little time or psychical stuff to devote to the girl who, it is not too much to say, had brought a new type of emotion into his life. But though he had no time to address himself actively to thoughts of her, her image lived somewhere in the background of his mind, without loss of vividness. Indeed, without volition on his part, it seemed to be gently soaking into the businesses with which he was more acutely concerned, so that, for instance, even when his brain was most attentive to some lugubrious rehearsal, he would see himself and her with perhaps Lady Crowborough as chaperone, and Frank Armstrong as perspiring author, seated in the stage box on the night of the first representation. Perhaps he would not ask Armstrong: as there was a fierce rugged kind of strength about him that a girl might possibly find attractive… But, such is the blindness with which ironical fate smites her puppets, no such qualms with regard to Charles, who had, so he had learned, stayed at the Mill House, on Lady Crowborough's invitation, for a week after the summer had broken in torrential rain, towards the end of July, ever entered his head.

Then only a week ago, for the date of production had to be postponed and yet again postponed until the rehearsals went with a smoothness that no friction disturbed, came the first night of "Easter Eggs," and before the evening was half over the conduct of the execrable Pict, and the apparent permanence of the post-Impressionist pictures on the walls of his gallery, had been smoothed out of Craddock's mind, as a wrinkle in the sand is erased by the incoming tide. From the first moment the simple and brilliant little play, with its neat construction and well-etched delineation of character, charmed and captivated the house. It was not necessary for the audience to put too strenuous a call on their intelligences, and, as Craddock had foreseen, they found an entertainment much to their minds in watching and enjoying the unfolding of the unpretentious but absorbing little chronicle. It had something of the fragrance of Cranford about it, and its gaiety was of some little bonneted Quakeress, suddenly moved to dance in a shy decorous manner. Nor did the faint patronizing blame and praise of the critics next morning disturb him in the slightest: he knew well from the manner of its reception, and the pleased chattering crowd that waited for their vehicles in the lobby when the last act was over that he need have no fear for the solidity of its first night's success. Being a critic himself, he knew how seldom his colleagues spotted the right horse. Indeed, the only jarring note was the attitude of the sardonic author, when, subsequently, he supped with the owner, and in reply to Craddock's congratulations returned those congratulations into his bosom. Armstrong, in fact, seemed rather vexed at the success of the evening, and Craddock remembering, for a brief moment, his own feelings on the success earned by the book of the execrable Pict, understood something of the young man's ingratitude.

Certainly the ill-luck which followed Craddock these last months – even at Marienbad the number of pounds of the too too solid which he had lost, were not what he had hoped for – seemed to have turned, for "Easter Eggs," when it had run a week, gave evidence by its advance bookings, of the security of its favour with the public, and the critics also were airily beginning to say that "they had said so all along." So, with the removal of these financial anxieties, Craddock was at leisure to turn his mind to the riverside again, and on the evening of the day on which he had visited Charles, just previous to the ruthless destruction of the head in his portrait, he went down again to Thorley to dine and sleep at Philip Wroughton's house. He had two ostensible reasons for so doing: in the first place he wanted to see Charles' copy of the Reynolds, in the second he wanted to talk over his friend's plans for the Egyptian winter. He was minded to spend a month or two in Egypt himself, and wondered whether a little judicious hinting would cause Philip to make a suggestion that he would be eager to fall in with.



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